August 18 at 12:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church
It was perhaps inevitable that developments in late 19th-century French visual art would soon find a corollary in music. The broad sweep of color begs for translation onto the musical canvas. No one has come to be identified with the impressionist style of music more than Claude Debussy (1866-1918). This is ironic - unfortunate, actually- for Debussy strongly disliked being labeled as an "impressionist composer." As he put it, "I am trying to do 'something different' - in a way, realities. What the imbeciles call 'impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics." Debussy gravitated more toward the Symbolist aesthetic of hidden meanings and revealed truths. Objects, even sounds, are simply "perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals" (Jean Mon as, Symbolist Manifesto).
In 1911 Debussy accepted a commission to write a modern "mystery play" based on the legend of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The work was nominally intended to showcase the talents of ballerina and soprano Ida Rubinstein, one of the darlings of the Parisian arts scene. Two giants of the famed Ballets Russes also took part: Leon Bakst designed the sets, and Michael Fokine prepared the choreography. In the long run, it is perhaps Debussy's luminous score that succeeded best. The premiere was not well-received, and Debussy shelved the score. Symphonic suites have been made from the material, and tonight we hear a contemporary arrangement of two movements by Vladimir Mendelssohn, longtime violist with SMF and a professor at Debussy's alma mater, the Paris Conservatory.
From Composer Stefan Heucke:
Andenken (Remembrance) is the title of a hymn written in 1803 by Friedrich Holderlin. It was first printed and published in 1808. The background of the poetic reflection on farewell and separation is the Bordelais landscape, which Holderlin remembered after his time there as a tutor and now visualizes in images. The poem, presumably the last to be completed and published by Holderlin himself, sheds light on Holderlin's time in France, about which comparatively little is known. In December 1801, he traveled on foot from Stuttgart to Bordeaux, where he worked for a short time as a tutor for the children of the Hamburg wine merchant Christoph Meyer. From the magnificent house in the classicist style, the harbor and the Garonne, sung about by Holderlin, were only a few minutes away. The wooded hills on the right bank of the river and the many ships at anchor were visible from the upper rooms. It is believed that Holderlin also looked at the closer surroundings and perhaps occasionally walked through the gardens.
Holderlin begins to write about things and processes from a distance, reflecting on them in this way. The first part of the work relates the world to the "I," the second shows the ego detached from its surroundings. If one assumes a structural dichotomy (two groups of 29 verse), the last verse (#59) would be superfluous. However, it is precisely this famous final line that contains a general statement about the nature and purpose of the poetry itself and is thus singled out in a surprising way. The work belongs to the important late works/hymns, where Holderlin interprets history as a process of divine revelation in an increasingly coded form. The last supernumerary verse, "Was bleibet aber stiften die Dichter" (But what is lasting the poets provide) which has become almost proverbial in German, prompted me to give this work the prominent place of Opus 100 in my oeuvre.
For millennia, artists have used elegiac poetry to commemorate honorable figures and mourn loved ones. Musical accompaniments for such poetry have, naturally, evolved over that span of time, and in some cases, artists opted to remove the text from their elegies altogether. The tradition of the purely instrumental elegy dates back to the 1600s, but was reinvigorated in the 1800s with the Romanticists. During this time period, these works still fulfilled the function of remembrance and expression of grief for specific individuals, and this elegy by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) is no exception: it was dedicated to the Polish noblewoman, pianist, and art patron Maria Kalergis upon her death in 1874. It is also true, however, that many 19th century composers used elegies as opportunities to reflect on death as a whole.
The elegance of Liszt's Elegy performed today pays tribute to a remarkable woman who fostered the growth of the arts as a pianist (a student of Chopin, no less) and as a prominent salon hostess. Yet the elegy also acts as a vehicle for the composer to struggle with his own feelings surrounding death and mortality, which perhaps explains some of the more tumultuous, angst-ridden passages in the short piece. Much of the writing, however, is beautifully lyrical, hearkening back to the sung poetic elegies of old, and the piece ends on a bright note, a fitting end to the composer's loving commemoration of his colleague.
Chester Biscardi's music has been performed throughout Asia, Europe, and North and South America. His catalog includes orchestral works, a chamber opera, music for percussion, piano, and chorus, as well as incidental music for theater, dance, and television. His recordings appear on the Albany, Bridge, CRI (New World Records), New Albion, and Steinway & Sons labels, among others, including a Naxos American Classics release entitled Chester Biscardi: In Time's Unfolding. Biscardi is a recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, among numerous other awards and fellowships.
His Photo I Pier I Moonlight, for violin duo was composed in 2015 and revised a year later. The musical ideas and form were suggested by a series of photographs entitled Pier 18-Rows of Prints (1971) by Jan Dibbets that reflect variations in the settings of the actual camera used as well as variations created by transformations of the environment itself being pictured, both progressing from very light to almost black. Biscardi selects the spare instrumentation of two solo violins to capture the impression of Dibbets' haunting image.
Zachary Wadsworth is a composer of "fresh, deeply felt and strikingly original" music (Washington Post) whose works have been heard around the world. In 2020, the premiere recording of his oratorio "When There is Peace" was nominated for a JUNO Award. In earlier seasons, he has held a residency at the Metropolitan Opera, and his music has been performed at Westminster Abbey in the presence of Queen Elizabeth IL Other recent honors include two National Choral Awards in Canada, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, NATS, ASCAP, and the American Composers Forum. Wadsworth's music is published by Novello and Schirmer, and his work has been heard on NPR and the BBC. Hailing from Richmond, Virginia, Wadsworth earned degrees from Eastman, Yale, and Cornell. He is an Associate Professor of Music at Williams College.
Wadsworth describes the background to his Abendlandisches Lied in this way: "The Austrian poet Georg Trakl was a medical attendant during World War I. Overwhelmed by the violence he saw while tending to the wounded, he died of a drug overdose in 1914 at the age of 27. His Abendldndisches Lied (Song of the Western Countries), written in the final year of his life, expresses the looming horror of modern war, and his hope that love would overcome violence and division. My settings this poem, composed for the Staunton Music Festival in 2014, alternates deep, dark music in the low horn and harp with more vibrant, brighter music in the high oboe and clarinet.
This program concludes where it began, showing a related but different side to the compositional style of Claude Debussy. Petite Suite is scored for four-hand piano and was first performed in 1889 by the composer himself and his pianist-publisher-friend Jacques Durand. The entire suite contains four movements, generally in an accessible and light-hearted vein. The first two movements, "En bateau" (sailing) and "Cortege" (retinue) were inspired by poems from Paul Verlaine's Fetes galantes. This was one of Debussy's favorite collections, one he took with him during his time in Rome beginning in 1885. Indeed, Debussy set six other poems from the series as songs for voice and piano.
"En bateau" uses rippling arpeggios in the bass against a singing melodic line to capture both the motion and emotion of sailing. The technical demands are modest, making the work (and the entire suite) appealing to amateur pianists. Indeed, most four-hand music had a domestic audience in mind. The second movement is more animated, filled with a charming scherzo-like quality. The third and fourth movements are not tied to any specific writings, but continue to carry out the delightful qualities that Debussy initialized in previous movements. "Menuet" offers an updated version of that baroque and classical triple meter dance form, whereas the finale (titled "Ballet") bounces along with all the joie de vivre of a sunlit Parisian afternoon: as if the corps de ballet had escaped the stage and taken straight to the gravelly lanes and fountains of the Tuilleries.
© Jason Stell and Emily Masincup, 2022